Lonely Planet has produced this article for Düsseldorf Marketing & Tourismus. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.
Famous for fashion, art, banking, beer and a bar-lined Altstadt (‘Old Town’), Düsseldorf has also developed a big appetite for the new and daring. The state capital of North Rhine-Westphalia on the Rhine River has been showing off its revived sizzle with architecture, neighborhood makeovers and even an ingeniously artistic metro line. What puts all this innovative pop into context, though, is a well-preserved past and treasured traditions. We’ve trained the spotlight on where to find the cutting edge in Düsseldorf’s diverse collection of lived-in locales, traditional haunts and downright historic hoods.
Architectural port of call
Where sweat once dripped off dockland workers’ foreheads, creative minds now forge ad campaigns and newspaper headlines. Just past the sky-piercing Rhine Tower, the MedienHafen (‘media harbour’) is Düsseldorf’s most spectacular urban revitalisation project. A cast of international top architects – Claude Vasconi, Richard Meier and Helmut Jahn among them – transformed the city’s old commercial harbor into an Instagram-worthy tableau of avant-garde buildings. Design geeks and photographers will be especially enthralled by Frank Gehry’s Neuer Zollhof, a trio of sculptural high-rises sheathed in stainless steel, red brick and white plaster, respectively. Two of them harbour trendy restaurants with plenty more around, including the Michelin-starred Berens am Kai and Curry, which serves up gold-leaf dusted sausages.
Old buildings, new life
Düsseldorf is pure genius when it comes to recycling disused spaces into exciting new venues. A prime example is K21, a world-renowned showcase of contemporary art. It’s housed in a stately 19th-century parliament building lidded by a stunning glass cupola and set on an idyllic pond. Nearby KIT is a subterranean contemporary art gallery wedged into a hollow between two road tunnels. Over in Flingern, a former factory has been reincarnated as the cultural centre ZAKK and an old tram depot is now the home of tanzhaus nrw (tanzhaus-nrw.de), an acclaimed dance academy and performance space. Boui Boui in equally happening Unterbilk is a converted screw factory now luring a motley crowd with parties, concerts, street food fairs and a night flea market.
Stellar art and culture
As a former planetarium, the Tonhalle has always trained the spotlight on the stars. These days, it’s the celestial Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra and the heavyweights of jazz, soul and chanson that shine beneath its ribbed metal-blue dome. The jewel-like concert hall with its otherworldly acoustics is part of an Expressionist building ensemble called the Ehrenhof, dreamed up in the 1920s by Wilhelm Kreis as an exhibition space and recast as a cultural centre in the 1970s. One wing houses the venerable Museum Kunstpalast with its flabbergasting stash of art from Old Masters and modern iconoclasts alongside precious troves of prints and graphics and 3500 years’ worth of glass art. For the cutting edge in artistic expression, head to the other wing where the NRW-Forum Düsseldorf mounts headline-making exhibits that break down the barriers between photography, architecture, fashion, design and digital art.
Nowhere does Düsseldorf’s pedigree as a fashion mecca find better expression than on its chic Königsallee. Along with Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue, the Kö, as it is fondly called, has long been one of the world’s most illustrious shopping avenues. Those who worship at the altar of Gucci & Co will be in heaven on this tree-lined catwalk of couture whose northern end spills into Daniel Libeskind’s striking Kö-Bogen, a sinuously geometric shopping mall completed in 2013.
Those with idiosyncratic tastes should take a stroll south to the hip ‘hood of Unterbilk. On and around Lorettostrasse, quirky boutiques like Romantiklabor stock fashion and accessories by young and local designers. A bevy of charismatic café-bars like Seifen Horst, meanwhile, offer beer and bites. Another strip to pick up indie and vintage styles is along Ackerstrasse in the increasingly hip Flingern district north of the main train station.
A potpourri of festivals
Be it during Carnival, the biggest fun fair on the Rhine, the cart-wheeling tournament or the Christmas market, the people of Düsseldorf need little excuse to let their hair down. But while they embrace these traditional celebrations with typical Rhenish joy and exuberance, they give equal love to a flurry of new zeitgeist-capturing festivals.
Top billing goes to a trio of music events. In July, the Open Source Festival (open-source-festival.de) rocks the city’s race track with an international lineup of stars and newcomers of the indie and electro scenes. The New Fall Festival (new-fall-festival.de) brings contemporary bands to classic venues like the tony Tonhalle concert hall and the futuristic Da Vinci ballroom at the Hotel Nikko. Also in October, music fans celebrate Düsseldorf’s impact on electronic music (thanks to the internationally renowned local pioneers Kraftwerk) during the three-day Electri_City Conference (electricity-conference.com) with lectures, DJ sets, and concerts by such new and old beat heroes as Heaven 17 and Apparat.
Kitchen confidential: basic to bold
Hungry travelers with a hankering for rib-sticking Rhenish cuisine will be in pig heaven in such traditional Altstadt brewpubs as Brauerei Im Füchschen or Zum Schlüssel. Typical palate pleasers include sauerbraten (pot roast marinated in vinegar and spices), Flöns (blood sausage) and Senfrostbraten (mustard-encrusted beef). All are best washed down with a glass of local lager called Altbier and chased with a shot of Killepitsch, a potent blood-red blend of some 90 fruits, herbs and spices. A cult place to try it is the pint-sized Altstadt bar Et Kabüffke.
Yet despite these cherished gastro traditions, Düsseldorf also has a voracious appetite for the culinary frontier. One of the newest hot spots is the elegant Phoenix, which delivers a next-wave interpretation of globally enhanced German classics in the revitalized Dreischeibenhaus, an iconic 1960s skyscraper. Down in the MedienHafen, Rocca im Gehry’s is a sassy steakhouse where prime cuts of meat get the ‘shock treatment’ in an 800-degree oven and dozens of wines are available by the glass. The pinnacle in fine dining might be found farther to the north along the Rhine at Im Schiffchen, the much-lauded laboratory of Michelin-decorated chef Jean-Claude Bourgueil.
Hip meets history
Not only has Düsseldorf’s city centre been spruced up, some of its suburbs are also in the midst of a makeover. All are easily reached by public transport.
Much deserving of a stroll is youthful Flingern whose core drag, Ackerstrasse, is alive with harbingers of hipsterism: owner-run boutiques, vintage hangouts like Café Hüftgold (divine cakes!) and minimalist-chic restaurant-bars like Nooij. Similarly, leafy Unterbilk just south of the Altstadt is another emerging boho-chic ‘burb brimming with engaging cafes and boutiques on and around Lorettostrasse.
At the same time, there are plenty of districts where you can easily connect with Düsseldorf’s past. Head to the quaint district of Benrath to see its trophy sight Schloss Benrath, a baroque pleasure palace set on expansive parklike grounds. Dreamed up in the 18th century by court architect Nicolas de Pigage for the art-minded Elector Karl Theodor, it is considered one of Europe’s finest park-and-palace ensembles. Aside from period-furnished rooms, its attractions include a garden museum and a natural history museum.
Upriver, the suburb of Kaiserswerth can trace its origin to around 700 but had its heyday in the 12th century when Emperor Frederick Barbarossa built an imperial palace right on the northern Rhine bank. Today you can feel the presence of long-gone souls as you wander among its romantic ruins. The most atmospheric approach is by boat; from spring to fall, Weisse Flotte makes the half-hour trip from Düsseldorf’s Altstadt up to five times daily.